Anti-Democratic Vistas, Part II

Reflections on the Revolutions in Hungary

(This is Part II of a two-part series on Hungary. Here is Part I.)

On June 17th, the front page of the New York Times featured the headline, “Hungarian Who Led '56 Revolt Is Buried as a Hero.” The re-buried hero was Imre Nagy, the Communist Prime Minister of Hungary during the 1956 revolution. Thirty one years earlier he was hanged and thrown into an unmarked grave under the orders of another supposedly reformist Communist, his former ally János Kádár, who was now senile and had just stepped down as General Secretary of the party. One of the eulogists in 1989 was Viktor Orbán, representing the Alliance of Young Democrats, or FIDESZ, then a left-liberal opposition group to the regime. Present at the funeral were also members of the Communist party as well, although not in an official capacity. The Party was already negotiating with the opposition and on the verge of giving up their hold on power.

Orbán excoriated the party big-wigs present: “We cannot understand that those who were eager to slander the revolution and its Prime Minister have suddenly changed into great supporters and followers of Imre Nagy. Nor can we understand that the party leaders, who made us study from books that falsified the revolution, now rush to touch the coffins as if they were charms of good luck.” Of Nagy, Orbán said, he, “identified himself with the wishes of the Hungarian nation to put an end to the Communist taboos, blind obedience to the Russian empire and with the dictatorship of a single party.” This speech over the coffins of dead Communists, delivered to nearly a quarter million people at the funeral, launched Orbán’s political career. “Finally, in a manner appropriate to Hungary’s culture, we achieved grace from the symbolic form of the 1956 revolution against the Soviet invaders,” he later told the German newspaper Bild. In December 2018, Orbán’s government removed a memorial to Nagy in Budapest’s Martyrs Square and replaced it with a replica of a monument from the time of the rreactionary Horthy regime to the victims of the first, short-lived 1919 Communist republic.

Nagy’s role in the revolution of 1956 is not straight forward. He is in fact better characterized as a martyr to the revolution, rather than a hero. As a high-ranking member of the Communist Party and the nominal head of government at the time, he mostly was swept along by events, rather than leading. Nagy, removed from a prominent role in the Party during the reign of the arch-Stalinist Rakosi, was re-installed by the Soviets after Krushchev’s “Secret Speech,” denouncing the excesses of Stalin. He instituted some moderate liberalizing reforms while working within the Communist party and state framework and became quite popular with the public. Then in 1955, the Soviets decided he was going too far and replaced him with Rakosi again, and then with the only-slightly-less Stalinist Gerö. But the cat was out of the bag: a group of intellectuals and journalists had organized themselves as the Petöfi Circle, after the Romantic poet-hero of the revolution of 1848.

On October 23 1956, the Petöfi Circle called for a demonstration in solidarity with the Polish workers uprising which had just won some concessions from the Communist government. The rally swelled to 300,000 participants, as workers’ getting off their shifts joined the students. Among their demands was the return of Nagy to power. Petöfi’s poem that triggered the 1848 uprising was recited in public. The regime probably could have placated the demonstrators with a minor concession, but instead the secret police fired into the crowd and the protest exploded into a genuine revolutionary situation. Furious crowds pulled down the statue of Stalin and laid siege to government buildings. The control of the Communist Party essentially collapsed overnight. Soviet tanks entered Budapest without infantry support and were easily destroyed or immobilized by insurgents who had armed themselves with Molotov cocktails. Hungarian police and troops started to join the crowds rather than contain or fight them.

Imre Nagy was called on to form a government, which contained non-Communist ministers, announced the return to a multi-party system, the abolition of the secret police, and the withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact. This quieted the insurgency for a time. But by this point the central government was not really in control. Self-governing committees, organized by revolutionaries and workers, sprang up spontaneously across the country and took over the tasks of administration from the Communist party. As the UN report on the uprising puts it, “The emergence of Revolutionary and Workers’ Councils throughout Hungary was one of the most characteristic features of the uprising. It represented the first practical step to restore order and to reorganize the Hungarian economy on a socialist basis, but without rigid Party control or the apparatus of terror.”

The appearance of these councils were greeted enthusiastically by intellectuals in the West. For the Trotskyist historian C.L.R. James, they represented the arrival of an authentic proletarian revolution:

Lenin from 1917 until his death struggled against the inevitable deformations of the one-party nation-state. From the first day of its existence the Hungarian Revolution simply abolished it as if the people of Hungary had been preparing themselves for nothing else. The workers’ councils, numbered in the hundreds, took over. While Radio Budapest still enunciated the Moscow line in various provinces, workers had taken over the radio stations where they broadcast a whole variety of demands. Wages and pensions were never first on the list. Even the parliamentary democracy spoken about was the type only defensible by a whole people in arms. By their very practical authority what was being formed in Hungary was a Republic of Councils.

“For us, that the workers of Hungary were ready to take over the economy and had won the confidence of farmers and intellectuals, that is the vindication of our theory and a guarantee of a high destiny for the great mass of mankind,” James put it in his lecture series Modern Politics.

Hannah Arendt, not herself a Marxist, but favorably quoted by James in his lectures, had a similarly-enthused reaction to the appearance of the councils. In a new epilogue to The Origins of Totalitarianism, she wrote:

For what happened here was something in which nobody any longer believed, if he ever had believed in it—neither the communists nor the anti-communists, and least of all those who, either without knowing or without caring about the price other people would have to pay, were talking about possibilities and duties of people to rebel against totalitarian terror. If there was ever such a thing as Rosa Luxemburg’s “spontaneous revolution”—this sudden uprising of an oppressed people for the sake of freedom and hardly anything else, without the demoralizing chaos of military defeat preceding it, without coup d’état techniques, without a closely knit apparatus of organizers and conspirators, without the undermining propaganda of a revolutionary party, something, that is, which everybody, conservatives and liberals, radicals and revolutionists, had discarded as a noble dream—then we had the privilege to witness it. Perhaps the Hungarian professor was right when he told the United Nations Commission: “It was unique in history, that the Hungarian revolution had no leaders. It was not organized; it was not centrally directed. The will for freedom was the moving force in every action.”

Suffice it to say, the councils did not last long. Eventually the Soviets decided things had gone too far; Nagy was removed, a second invasion by Russian tanks overcame the insurgency, and Kádár returned the country to one-party rule, combining brutal repression and some concessions to create what was to be known as “goulash communism,” which provided some market features and improved living standards. It was the failure of the Hungarian revolution that preserved its romantic image for Western intellectuals: they didn’t have to see the democratic dream actually contend with reality.

Georg Lukacs in his Theory of the Novel wrote that epic poems begin in the middle because of the totally “organic,” “rounded” nature of the “epic mentality”: it was possible to begin anywhere because the world it reflected was complete in itself. 1956 was a repetition, an echo, of 1848, Hungary’s other failed revolution, also put down by an invading Russian army. Its author, the democratic radical Lajos Kossuth, was greeted with jubilation by crowds in England and the United States, which briefly fell under a mania for all things Hungarian. Walt Whitman, author of Democratic Vistas among other things, witnessed Kossuth’s triumphal parade into New York and met with him several times. In later years, he had a distinctly sober take on Kossuth’s campaign in America:

I knew Kossuth—talked with him on several occasions. He still lives, as bright intellectually—the same fine noble soul as ever. When I saw him he was a small man, eloquent to a great height—vivacious. Kossuth made a great mistake after his coming here. He had been almost importuned to come here by officials, by Congress, was brought in an American man-of-war. At that time any one of the nations—Germany, Austria, France, Russia—would have killed him—hung him—if they could have got him in their hands. But Kossuth's great mistake after he got here was to make an effort to have America range herself in his cause. We all recognized it at once as deplorable. We could not have done it then, could not do it now, ought never to do it. Yet he went up and down through our states, pleading for it. I am even opposed to Congress petitioning the Czar to investigate Siberia—even that is out of our province. We can never be in a position to arbitrate—enforce our arbitrament—in European contests.

For their part, Marx and Engels went from admirers of Kossuth in 1848, to bitter critics, because of Kossuth’s purported approaches to European despots for their support for an independent Hungary. They became disgusted by his pursuit narrowly nationalistic goals that lead him in their eyes to become a toady to the tyranny of Napoleon III.

I don’t know when the next revolution in Hungary will come and if it will inspire the same feelings in the West, but I don’t think Orbán’s regime will last forever. Already tensions are appearing. Somewhat surprisingly during this latest round of Hungary mania, no one so far as I know has pointed to the labor unrest of 2018, when thousands of workers’ protested the so-called “Slave Law,” which essentially established enforced overtime. The emigration of workers from Hungary and the strict immigration policy of Orbán’s government had created a bind: there weren’t enough workers to meet the demands of the German auto-manufacturers that make up a good deal of the economy. In fact, in July of this year, the government turned to non-EU workers to alleviate the broader labor shortage. Hungarians are already some of the longest-working and lowest-paid Europeans. Apparently, Orbán’s resistance to “globalism” doesn’t extend to protecting the nation’s working class from multinational corporations. So, here’s to the next insurrection of the workers in Hungary.